Repair Relationship with Autistic Teen

My teen son likely has Autism.  I have been reading about “Defense Mode” and PDA.  The simplest interactions are challenging. There is always some underlying tension.  I think he has a trauma response to me and is basically always defensive or angry with me. I am hyper critical and he is either similarly critical or avoidant. I want a loving and trusted relationship but don’t know how to restore/improve things.  Recommendations on what to read or do would be appreciated.  I am heartbroken that things are at this point. 

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"Magnificent Minds" is a book that was helpful to me, and also "The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice Of A 13-Year-Old Boy With Autism." 

It's tough, and I empathize!  What helped me the most was DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) and in particular, the idea of validation. All feelings are valid. So even though my kid's reactions to things don't make sense to me or I think/know there are solutions to problems they find insurmountable their feelings are valid. First, validate, then problem-solve. So when my teen didn't want to go to school rather than insisting that he had to go, first validate. "You really don't want to go to school today."  It sounds crazy but it works when you do it over and over. I needed a class and a therapist to really get it but there are also workbooks you can buy. Now he is in his early 20s and we have a good relationship. Also, getting an official diagnosis was super helpful to us. Good luck. It is not easy, but it can improve. Sending you support. 

This sounds so hard and I think I can understand — I was in a similar place with my son until he was diagnosed w ASD at age 13. I’d be happy to talk about what worked for me and our family — I have been able to turn around my interpretations and responses to his behavior (it was a steep learning curve and has evolved over the past 7 years) and now things have become so much better. It can happen, I promise you. Feel free to contact me personally using the contact link below. 

I have an autistic son who is now 20. I raised him mostly alone and we had some very challenging times. Here are some thoughts that I hope will help. I took him camping a lot and that developed into a shared love of travel and the outdoors. I think it is very important to do this early on with a neurodivergent child because they can become quite "stuck" in their routines. If camping is too much, short hikes to some kind of attractive destination like a waterfall or along a beach might be a pleasant way to start spending time together without a lot of stress. Also, we always had a TV show that we binge watched together by watching one episode every day after dinner. I let him pick the show. This let us decompress from our day and be together without feeling the pressure to be too interactive, which he found draining. It also helped if I tried to do  small things to support my son's interests. I noticed that if I did even small things to support his special interests, he appreciated it and this helped build closeness. For example, I let him use my expensive camera to make videos when he was into that and I taught him to play poker when he became interested in card games. We also got a dog, which really helped our relationship as we bonded over all of the puppy care, training, and fun of hanging out with our dog.  I hope this helps. Good luck!

The book, _Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life_ by Marshall B. Rosenberg could be of help. I borrowed it from the library. It was recommended to me by my niece who is a psychologist. I have found these ideas immensely helpful for a difficult relationship I have with a family member, and also for all my relationships. You can learn more locally on the Bay Area Non-Violent Communication website at 

Hi, I have a PDA kid in my life and I've read a few things that were helpful. To learn more about PDA, "Understanding Pathological Demand Avoidance Syndrome in Children" by Margaret Duncan is very thorough. To read about how a woman dealt with her three children on the spectrum, including with PDA, I recommend "Low-Demand Parenting" by Amanda Diekman. For practical advice on communication, I liked Declarative Language Handbook by Linda K Murphy.

This is a summary that has a graphic illustration I found helpful in explaining to others about the condition. It includes a basic summary of PDA.

It seems to me that this condition is becoming better known, and hopefully more child therapists will become aware of it and be trained in it.


ITU and I've been there and navigated the many difficulties in trying to coregulate with another nervous system that's habituated towards defense mode. That said, we as parents need to understand and learn how best to make accommodations for it and see where the triggering is happening and slow things down for ourselves before we're hijacked.

There are many great books, websites, a great local counselor (expert on the family dynamics + I can share offline) that can reorient you and provide context for the behaviors which are puzzling and hurtful because we want to be a connected, attuned parent. 

Google Danny Raede at Asperger Experts

Polyvagal Theory and ASD

The Family Experience of PDA- Amazon

The Body Keeps the Score



Parenting someone with autism is really challenging (speaking from personal experience). The key is building a foundation of real trust where the child feels that you are genuinely on their side and truly loving and supportive.  This allows them to feel safe and not constantly defensive ( e.g. shut down in "defense mode" as you mentioned).  Once they feel safe, you can re-build a relationship on that.   Being hyper critical is unfortunately very counter productive.  But you can really improve things if you are willing to make changes in how you parent.  If you are referring to "defense mode" maybe you have already found   (Run by an adult with autism; it helps parents).   I can also refer you to a gifted therapist: Haley Hewitt.  She is based in SF but may still come to Oakland/Berkeley (not sure about this).  I can also recommend Krissy Pozatek, MSW who did an excellent online /participatory intensive parenting program to help parents facing similar challenges.    good luck; hang in there.

I absolutely hate it when people say "you need to talk to a therapist!" but ... you might benefit from working with a therapist who has real understanding of autism and can talk you through some strategies for re-shaping interactions. 

My kid is not autistic, but we were really butting heads. I had to start making some conscious decisions about how I approached our relationship. Some things that I do that have helped:

We take walks together. I try to just listen without reacting. It takes practice. But I can say "hey. I feel like we're fighting a lot. Can we go for a walk so I can hear you out?" And then I listen. I don't react, I don't argue. I don't defend. I listen. And I empathize. And sometimes I say "I hear you and I need to think about that." But that's as close as I go to defending myself. 

I look for treats. Any excuse. I'm proud of you for sending your aunt a thank you note without any prompting. Let's go get you an ice cream. And I listen. I don't react. Let him talk. Let him say whatever shit he wants to say. Empathize if he's hurting ("That sounds super frustrating.") and offer to help, in the broadest sense ("If there's help you'd be open to accepting from me, I do want to help."). 

Let the phenomenal world dole out consequences as much as possible. You can say "hey, I think it might be a good idea to change out of your new favorite outfit before you paint your room. I can't replace it if you get paint on it." but then it's on him. And then I don't say "yeah, well. I told you so." when he has nothing to wear. I just say "man. that is a bummer. I'm sorry that you don't have any thing you want to wear." I might say "Listen, I know that you really liked that sweatshirt, so let's figure out if we can replace it?"

I finally had to wrap my head around the fact that fighting over grades and school wasn't working. If he fails all his classes, he won't graduate from high school. If he doesn't graduate from high school, he'll have to make some choices, but the choices will still be there (B-Tech, Community College, a GED class). And as it turns out, he's already starting to think that he's not thrilled with how many classes he's going to have to repeat. So we've said "Let us know how we can help." We've made some specific offers, but he has to decide to take them or not. And then when he talks about it I name what I'm hearing: "It sounds a little daunting."  He decided he wants a job, so we said "cool. Let's talk about whether there are ways you're willing to let us support you so you can get the C-average you need for that work permit." This was a hard place to get to -- I want him to want more. And he might. But I've come to the conclusion that he is only going to want more if he thinks he's worth it. So ... relationship first. 

Your mileage may vary, and I really do think that a few sessions with a therapist might help you refine a strategy for navigating the things you're navigating. 

I'm so sorry for what you and your son are going through and I can empathize. I highly recommend Differently Wired by Debbie Reber.  She also has a podcast called Tilt Parenting which has proven super helpful to me. She also has a parent support group which is affordable and could be useful if individual / family therapy is not possible. Stanford also has a parent support group you might find helpful as well. More info here:  I've only attended 1 parent support group call but it was valuable.